Book Review: “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” by Diarmaid MacCulloch

38390462The stories of King Henry VIII and the men around him have fascinated generations of historians, but there was one man who has received a negative reputation for his actions. He was the supposed son of a butcher who rose to be Henry VIII’s right-hand man, until his dramatic fall in July 1540. Thomas Cromwell was credited for helping Henry with his Great Matter, the fall of Anne Boleyn, the establishment of the Church of England, and the disastrous marriage between Henry and Anna of Cleves. Diarmaid MacCulloch has taken on the challenge to figure out who Thomas Cromwell really was by sifting through all remaining archival records that we have from this extraordinary man. It is in this book, “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” that MacCulloch masterfully explores the story of this man who changed English and European history forever.

Personally, I have never read a book about Thomas Cromwell, but I did want to learn more about his role in Henry VIII’s government. I had heard great things about this particular book and I wanted to read a definitive biography about Cromwell. Although at first, I was a bit intimidated reading something so academically written, I am really glad that I embarked on this journey to discover the truth of this much-maligned historical figure.

MacCulloch dives into the life of Cromwell by trying to piece together his early years and his Italian connections in the clothing trade. Cromwell did not receive a normal education of the day as he almost taught himself, which made him appreciate books and literature even more. It was these connections and his hard work which allowed Cromwell to rise to a position where he was working under Thomas Wosley. The lessons that Cromwell learned from Wosley would be beneficial as he took over as the King’s right- hand man after Wolsey’s fall from grace.

It is the decade that Cromwell served as Henry’s administrative polymath that is MacCulloch’s main focus. This part might trip up casual history students as it is very academic. My suggestion, if you are a casual history student, is to take your time to fully understand the steps that Cromwell took to change the political and religious landscape of England to make sure Henry was happy. It was not always an easy task, but with great risks came great rewards, such as the title of Vice-Gerent in Spirituals. Cromwell’s fingerprints could be seen all over the establishment of the Church of England, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the expanding powers of Parliament. There were those who were not exactly thrilled with all of these changes, however, the only opinion that truly mattered was the one that belonged to Henry VIII, and he was happy with Cromwell’s work.

Cromwell was not just a politician, he was a father to a son named Gregory Cromwell. It was interesting to learn that even after his wife died, Thomas Cromwell never remarried and raised Gregory as a single father. It was when Cromwell got involved in Henry’s personal life that matters got tricky for Cromwell. Obviously, many people are familiar with Cromwell’s role with Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace. However, it was the marriage between Henry and Anna of Cleves that would be the incident that brought Cromwell from the pinnacle of power to death’s door.

MacCulloch’s biography is truly a triumph. It is academic, both in its meticulously researched contents and its writing style, yet it remains engaging and thought-provoking. Although at times, this book was challenging, it was one of those books that you feel proud to read. If you want a fabulous book about the life of Thomas Cromwell as well as the changes that he helped create in the Tudor government and the establishment of the Church of England, “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” by Diarmaid MacCulloch should be included in your collection.

Book Review: “Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him” by Tracy Borman

40642324The story of the reign of King Henry VIII has been told mainly through his numerous marriages and through the lives of his children. Although his immediate family was a big part of his legacy, there is much more to his story than his tempestuous relationships. There were also his legal, religious, and military exploits. The ones who were with Henry when he made these decisions were the men who were loyal to him, his counselors and companions. Their tales are often told separately, until now. Tracy Borman has decided to masterfully combine their tales to explore the life of their infamous king in her latest biography, “Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him”. 

I have read plenty of books about Henry VIII’s wives and his children, but I haven’t read many books about the legendary man himself. I wanted a biography that explored the decisions he made in his life and the men who helped him along the way. That is exactly what Borman delivered in this biography that is bountiful with the information that it provides. 

Like any good biography, Borman begins by exploring Henry VIII’s birth and childhood. This is actually a significant time in his life and in the development of the future king of England. Growing up as the second son, Henry VIII was not destined to be king, but when his older brother Arthur tragically passed away, everything changed and Henry was thrust into a life of training to become king. He was constantly living in the shadow of his father and once he became king, he tried to outshine Henry VII.

Once he became king, Henry surrounded himself with men, both of royal birth and humble origins, to help run England. Some of the men that Borman included are Charles Brandon, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Francis Bryan, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Wroithesley, and Thomas Howard. Relatively familiar names for those who have studied the Tudors before and understand the significance of their roles in the Tudor court. However, Borman also includes the stories of men who did their best work on the sidelines, like the painters, diplomats, members of his inner circle, and doctors who saw all of Henry’s triumphs and failures. 

By highlighting the men that Borman did, she gives her audience a fresh perspective on such an infamous figure in history. He was a complex figure who could change his mind at a drop of the hat. These men knew how to navigate the dangerous situations that they were thrust into in order to make sure that their master’s orders were carried out. Of course, some went above the call of duty and others lost their lives to achieve their goals. 

This was the first book that I have read by Tracy Borman and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Her writing style was so engaging that I did not want this book to end. I thought I knew a lot about Henry VIII and his men, but “Henry VIII and the Men who Made Him” still provided new facts that surprised me. If you want to read a biography about Henry VIII that gives a fresh and innovative look into his life, I highly recommend you read this book. 

Book Review: “Jane the Quene” by Janet Wertman

513yHRNsuFLHenry VIII may have had six wives, but only one could give him the desired son that he wanted. She was kind, demure and everything that Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn was not. Her name was Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. Sadly, she is often remembered for the birth of her son and her death. However, there was a lot more to Jane’s story than the ending. What was her relationship with her family like? How did she fall in love with the King? And how was her relationship with her romantic rival, Anne Boleyn? These are just some of the questions that Janet Wertman strives to answer in her first novel of her new Seymour Saga called, “Jane the Quene”.

I would like to thank Janet Wertman for sending me a copy of “Jane the Quene”. This was a delightful read and a fantastic start to the Seymour Saga.

Wertman begins her book with a prologue of Jane Seymour entering the services of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon. In this opening scene, we begin to see a rivalry bloom between Jane and her cousins Anne and Mary Boleyn. After Catherine and Henry divorce, Anne Boleyn becomes Queen and Jane Seymour is in the services of the new queen, hoping to help and serve while looking for a husband. Her brother Edward does not think that having Jane in court is really working to help her find a husband. He wants to send her home so that her younger sister can possibly find a husband, but things change when King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn visit Wolf Hall. Wertman description of how the king and Jane become friends during this visit is rather charming and very natural. Jane tries to ignore the king’s interest in her, but Henry can’t forget the kind and demure nature of Jane and eventually, the two fall in love, even though Henry is still married to Anne.

In the middle of this tangled love mess is Thomas Cromwell, a clerk who wants to please his king in order to make his own career grow. Henry is not happy with his marriage to Anne Boleyn since she has not been able to give him  a son, so he gives Cromwell the task of “getting rid of her”. However, Cromwell needs to find another wife who would be the opposite of Anne Boleyn. That is when he comes up with a plan to make Jane Seymour Henry’s next wife and queen, which does succeed.  

Wertman’s Jane Seymour is a complex character who cares about her family and her husband. She is not just some plain wallflower who merely followed Anne Boleyn as Henry’s wife for a short time. With strong allies, like Cromwell and her brothers Edward and Thomas, Jane rises like a phoenix and survives all of the hate from Anne to become Henry’s beloved wife and queen. Wertman portrays Henry VIII as a man who is intelligent, caring and who struggles with how to reform the church.

Wertman breathes new life into the story of Jane Seymour. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, which is the first book in her Seymour Saga, as it balances the political intrigue of the Tudor court with the romance between Henry and Jane. Their love story is one that is often forgotten in the chaos of Henry’s marriage track record, but one that needs to be told. Jane will not be just the “third wife” or “the mother of Edward VI” after this book. She was a strong woman who truly loved Henry VIII.  If you really want to read a novel about Jane Seymour, I highly recommend you read “Jane the Quene” by Janet Wertman.